Back to the Motherland: Cubans in Africa

Cuba: An African Odyssey is the fruit of fifteen years’ research and organizing on the part of Egyptian Jihan el Tahri. Treating three hot wars within the context of over “a quarter century plus one year, one month and one day” in the life of the larger Cold War.

Disguised in 1965, clean-shaved in a suit and thick-rim glasses, Che Guevara is another man — on shipping across Lake Tanganyika into the Belgian Congo/Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaïre — to bring revolutionary expertise to those fighting for the leftist MNC ideals of popular PM Patrice Lumumba, usurped and murdered by Col. Joseph Mobutu. Before his own failure, capture and murder, Che would take Bolivian guerrillas to task on “the reality of war. I emphasized the importance of a united command and discipline . . . of the party’s line.” Unable to inculcate military or ideological order, Guevara left Africa secretly after eight months.

So opens the film, followed by a middle section on Cuban aid to also-assassinated Amílcar Cabral’s PAIGC movement for Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, separately independent in the wake of Lisbon’s 1974 Carnation Coup, the former as Guinea-Bissau. Speaking of the convoluted situation in, and worldwide concern with, Angola and Namibia — the last section in time but the documentary centerpiece — Fidel emphasizes that, contrary to capitalism’s imputing its own imperialistic ends to Cuba, “we have no selfish reasons.”

An ex-U.S. diplomat assesses that then as now we misread Cuba and the legitimate credit it deserves for bringing settlement to Angola’s alphabet soup of conflicting acronyms, armies and special interests from the Western and Eastern blocs as well as within the African continent. Governed after 1975 nationhood by the formerly Zambia-based liberation party MLPA, large, potentially rich Angola was plagued by warring factions, with South Africa’s “mandate” South West Africa/Namibia serving as a base for UNITA armed incursions (soon also supported by Washington, which as well funded yet another army in FNLA), as Pretoria simultaneously fought Namibia’s revolutionary SWAPO and maintained apartheid in its ex-German protectorate today touted for tourism as “quaint, but a land of stark beauty and riveting contradictions.”

Fidel was so joyfully embraced in Angola’s capital, Luanda, that his visit was extended into a three-week triumphal tour. Already suffering privation, and later itself to lose Soviet aid, his own island had given its lifeblood for emerging brother nations: the remains of ten thousand of Cuba’s fallen (many of them at Cuito Cuanavale, the greatest battle on the continent since El Alamein) were transported home for burial.

The legwork research here is impressive, even for those who question El Tahri’s hagiographic treatment. Protagonists’ motivations and actions are of course open to different interpretation, with interviewees on whatever side seemingly likeable, eloquent and sometimes surprisingly humorous about the past.

Back to the Motherland: Cubans in Africa

On October 14, 1975, as Angolan independence approached and the civil war tipped in favour of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the South African armoured column Zulu crossed into Angola. Made up of white troops from the South African Defense Forces (SADF) assisted by several thousand black mercenaries, Zulu rolled over the MPLA’s few defences and started racing for the capital, Luanda. Joining Zulu came a second column, Foxbat, airlifted into the central Angolan town of Silva Porto—a gangster’s Shangri La and home to the warlord Jonas Savimbi and his murderous National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Meanwhile, from the north came another anti-Communist guerrilla army, Holden Roberto’s National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which was saturated with CIA personnel, South African military advisors, and Zairian troops, plus some Portuguese and British soldiers of fortune.

This secret invasion code named “Operation Savanna” was just the culmination of an older U.S.-backed, Kissinger-approved program of covert action which had begun half a year earlier when it became clear that an exhausted Portugal was giving up on its colonial project and that the Marxist MPLA would win the civil war between itself and the two anti-Communist groups, UNITA and the FNLA. Formal decolonization was set for November 11, 1975, and the CIA/South African invasion was an attempt to steal Angola away from the MPLA before that legitimizing date.

Also on the ground were five hundred volunteer Cuban military advisors who had been training and fighting alongside the MPLA for the last two months, but many of this number were in the country’s detached northern oil-rich enclave, Cabinda. The speed and secrecy of the South African blitzkrieg stunned both the MPLA leadership and the Cubans. Less than three weeks after invading, Zulu was almost upon Luanda, yet the head of the Cuban military mission, Diaz Argüeselles, still did not grasp the magnitude of the situation.

A few days later, the Cubans and the MPLA leadership were disabused of their confusion when all the coastal highway towns south of Luanda had fallen to Zulu. Within hours it became clear to the MPLA and their Cuban comrades on the ground—and then to Fidel and his brother Raul Castro—that they must choose either to abandon Angola to the ravages of South Africa and its proxy warlords or send immediate reinforcements. After consulting with Raul and a few top aids, Fidel dispatched 430 members of the Special Forces and an artillery regiment. Most would go by boat arriving in about a week, but a vanguard detachment of 158 elite Cuban commandos and heavy weapons specialists dressed in civilian clothes boarded two passenger planes and took off for Angola.

Before they left Fidel met them on the tarmac. “He spoke most of all about the South African invasion,” recalled one veteran of the operation. “He said that some of the Cuban instructors had died, that it was a difficult situation, that we must stop the South Africans before they reached Luanda and that many of us would not return. He said that it was very hard for him to say this and not go with us.” Even more chilling were the final instructions: fight with the MPLA, if the MPLA lost the capital go to the hills and fight on, if the MPLA gave up—only then, if possible—the survivors should fall back to Zambia where Cuba had a new embassy.

After two stops for refuelling, the Special Forces touched down in Luanda under the cover of night and immediately raced to the nearby bluff-top village of Quifandongo from which the MPLA was guarding the capital with several hundred of its best troops, some artillery pieces and six Soviet-made rocket launchers. Just outside Quifandongo lay Holden Roberto’s FNLA, a host of 3,500 mounted on trucks, tanks, and mobile artillery, massing for their final assault on Luanda.

But here fate and the megalomaniacal hubris of the CIA’s pet, Roberto, intervened. As one of the South African veterans of the operation wrote: “Unlike Savimbi who…relied on his South African advisors’ professional knowledge, Roberto insisted on going his own way.” As high-flying South African bombers attempted to soften up the village, the attacking foreigners suggested a flanking manoeuvre but “Roberto shrugged off all such subterfuges in favour of an advance straight down what later became known as Road.’ ”

The FNLA forces—described by a South African veteran as a “hoard of partly trained…tribesmen…Portuguese mercenaries…[and] faint-hearted Zairians…” held together by a few SADF officers and CIA advisors—lined up on the road to attack as a convoy. Greeting them was an awful hail of Cuban controlled artillery. As one discouraged white advisor later wrote, “one by one the armoured cars were knocked out.” Mauled and panicked, the attackers scattered.

From there, half the Cubans turned south and ambushed Column Zulu. Put in check, the column tried an end run around the Cubans but was ambushed again. This time, caught on a long open stretch of road surrounded by impassable monsoon-soaked terrain, the South African tanks and trucks were smashed to pieces. From then on Zulu’s war was a fighting retreat home. By March 27, 1976, the last SADF tanks rolled back across the Namibian border where then defense minister, and future South African president, P. W. Botha watched and saluted through “a cloud of dust.”

News of South Africa’s humiliation in Angola swept the Bantustans electrifying and emboldening ANC activists and youth. A few months later the ghetto of Soweto exploded, marking the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Impressive as it may be, the Cuban adventure in Angola was only one piece of a truly audacious African foreign policy. Cuba was not a Soviet pawn in Angola or elsewhere. In fact, in the majority of these interventions the Cubans played a leading role, sometimes acting against the wishes of the Soviet Union. In Angola, for example, the MPLA had been requesting direct military intervention—troops—from both the USSR and the Cubans starting in early 1975. But these socialist states held off: Cuba for fear of antagonizing the United States; the USSR in the hope of achieving a new arms agreement.

When Cuba finally acted it did so without consulting the Soviets. And when the Russian “elder brothers” were presented with the fait accompli of Cuban troops duking it out with South African invaders, requests from Castro and the MPLA for military aid contained as much blackmail as they did supplication. What were the Russians to do—let the Cubans sink? Of course once the tide had turned, the independence date had come, and South Africa had finally been exposed in the western press as the aggressor, the USSR was happy to help out.

Cuba’s interventions were not always victorious. Che’s year in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo was a socialist Heart of Darkness. Che’s host, the dashing, seemingly committed Laurent Kabila turned out to be a soft, jet-setting fundraiser who frequented foreign capitals while his troops languished in the jungles around Lake Tanganyika. Che tried to turn things around but Kabila’s Simbas (meaning lions) preferred to lay low while a U.S.-backed army of white mercenaries supported by Cuban-American pilots had its way with the geographic heart of Africa. Likewise a leftist coup in the nearby French Congo turned out to be heavy on radical pronouncements but light on actual socialist forward motion. The Cuban mission there—to train a more left-leaning popular militia—ended after a right-wing coup.

The Cubans risked all for leaders they liked and respected while often suffering chilly relations with groups that might seem their natural allies. Che set the initial tone in most of these cases during his diplomatic barnstorming through Africa in late 1964 and early 1965. At times the connections and near misses seem counterintuitive. For example, Che offended and alienated the very Marxist, Cuban-oriented Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, but quickly bonded with the ideologically more eclectic, more social democratic, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau’s liberation movement. In later years this meant scant Cuban involvement in Mozambique and a huge military and medical assistance package for Cabral’s forces in Guinea Bissau.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Frantz_Fanon_The_Wretched_of_the_Earth

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”

 

 

In 1961 Frantz Fanon dictated most of his last book, Les Damnés de la Terre, translated as The Wretched of the Earth, from a mattress on the floor of a flat in Tunis. He was 36 years old and dying of leukaemia. The disease had recently blinded him for some weeks but he managed to complete the book in ten weeks in a race against death.

Fanon, who was from Martinique in the Caribbean, had ended up Tunisia after he joined the Algerian national liberation movement in 1954. He had joined the Free French Forces fighting the Nazis as a teenager and, as a result, had been able to study medicine in France after the war. He had specialised in psychiatry and had taken a post in a psychiatric hospital in colonial Algeria.

 

The Wretched of the Earth draws on Fanon’s involvement in the Algerian struggle against French colonialism as well as his travels around Africa as an ambassador for the Algerian national liberation movement. It begins with an account of the colonial city, ‘this world divided in two’, and goes on to examine the internalisation of colonial violence among the oppressed, the resulting violence among the oppressed, and the moment when violence is turned back on colonial oppression.

Fanon then turns his critical attention towards anti‑colonial resistance, stressing that in the colonial situation Marxism needs to be ‘stretched’ and paying particular attention to the political agency of ordinary people, including peasants and the urban poor. He is committed to forms of struggle that are genuinely mass-based and participatory.

The book’s third focus is an examination of the pathologies of the regimes that came to power in Africa after colonialism. In Fanon’s estimation they took over rather than undid colonial systems, demobilised the mass movements that had brought them to power and used their own political credibility to entrench authoritarian and predatory regimes. Against this, still committed to a radical humanism, he posed a refusal of technocratic approaches to development and the full involvement of the people in both political and economic life. The final chapter of the book, drawing on Fanon’s case notes from his period as a psychiatrist in Algeria, investigates the damage done to human beings by colonialism and violence.

The Wretched of the Earth was banned on publication in France and copies were seized from bookshops. But it was heralded in radical black circles in the US and taken up in places such as Iran and Sri Lanka. Fifty years later it remains the key text in radical circles in South Africa, where it is regularly cited by grass-roots militants.

Initial readings of the book often caricatured Fanon’s endorsement of violence against colonial regimes. Fanon’s support for violent struggle was often read outside the context of the extraordinary violence of French colonialism in Algeria and there has been a racist double standard in which Fanon is excoriated for endorsing violent struggle while white intellectuals, such as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre or George Orwell, are not subject to the same condemnation. Although he had been decorated for bravery while serving in the Free French Forces, Fanon had a personal horror of violence and was acutely aware of the damage that it can do to individuals and societies.

Many of the misreadings of The Wretched of the Earth are due to the way the book is developed as an unfolding narrative in which consciousness changes in the vortex of struggle. Statements affirmed with unqualified emphasis at one point are often questioned later on. This means that the book has to be read as a whole to be properly understood and that simply taking isolated quotes or extracts will not give an accurate impression of the author’s intentions.

Fanon left this world as The Wretched of the Earth entered it. Fifty years on, his final book retains an extraordinary political charge in countries where it remains necessary to oppose both new forms of colonial or neo-colonial power and new forms of elite accommodation with that power in the name of the nation.

 

The Battle of Algiers- “The Revolt that Stirred the World”

The re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 black-and-white film The Battle of Algiers, recreating France’s suppression of the 1950s Algerian uprising, is an extraordinary experience. Granted, the audio dubbing of gunfire sounds a bit rickety now, and the way the intertitles switch between Italian and French is eccentric, but everything else makes this a newer-than-new release. It is of its time in many ways, yet somehow more extreme, and more contemporary, than anything else around. Famously, the Pentagon arranged a special in-house screening in 2003, evidently fascinated by exactly the same qualities that have mesmerised the movie’s followers elsewhere: its icy candour on the subjects of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and the vital importance of torture in eliciting information. Those torture scenes are laid out in montage for us without any self-conscious emotional affect or drama; they include blowtorching the suspect’s naked torso, waterboarding, and clipping electrodes to the earlobes before hand-cranking the voltage. These scenes are presented without any of the internal humanising or dramatising conflict that would be considered vital now: they do indeed look almost like a military training film. Another sort of director, possessed of a more conventional liberal scruple, might have felt the need to show a torturer’s inner pain or the torturee’s hidden backstory. But Pontecorvo shows them in terms of strategy.

The anti-hero is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, the paratroop commander entrusted by the French government with putting down the Algerian revolt. He is a tough, wiry professional soldier of the sort adoringly imagined by Frederick Forsyth: a veteran of the French Resistance who shrugs his shoulders at any possible irony. He is the centrepiece to the most remarkable sequence, captured on the film’s poster. At the head of his troops, he simply leads a triumphalist, introductory parade down the main street, to reassure loyal citizens that the French army will crush the terrorists – and to face down the terrorists themselves. He strides easily, casually, with no sidearm on show, utterly confident in the power of the spectacle he has created. With his fatigues, beret and faintly sinister sunglasses, he looks like a cross between a top para in Northern Ireland and an IRA chief. Mathieu’s face moves in and out of shadow on this sunny day: the result of the natural light that Pontecorvo is using, and integral to his “newsreel” effect.

The French authorities first license a covert bomb attack in the casbah – “state terrorism” before the phrase was invented – but then, under Mathieu, they embark on a disciplined campaign of isolating terrorist cells, torturing them for the names of operatives further up the pyramid-chain until the key figures at the top are obliterated. No nonsense about hearts and minds: this is a military solution to a military problem. “The culprits are presumed to be Muslim …” Mathieu crisply briefs his men, and a 2007 audience holds its breath. “… so they will be able to hide more easily in the Arab quarters.” This film was composed in an era when Islamic identity was not as important as it is today: there are no mosques, no religion here. Then the keyword was “Arab” and it easy to forget that as recently as the first Iraq war in 1991, the question was whether a putative brotherhood of Arab nations would support Saddam. Mathieu’s campaign is crowned with Pyrrhic victory.

The terrorists are beaten, but a later popular uprising drives the French out, precisely as Mathieu had enigmatically appeared to predict, using Dien Bien Phu as his benchmark: the Indo-Chinese imperial burden which the French fatefully handed on to the Americans. Whatever they made of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon, this is a must-see for everyone else now.